Review: Atlantic Chamber Ensemble

March 30, Richmond Music Hall, Capitol Ale House

The Atlantic Chamber Ensemble introduced a Nonet, “Rags and Hymns of River City,” by Mason Bates in a downtown Richmond venue better-known for rock and blues than for classical music. That the new piece, and others on the program, were not musical misfits in this space says a lot about the directions that the music commonly known as classical has been taking for the past generation.

Bates, who grew up in Richmond and has since become one of the most frequently performed living composers in this country, has been an active navigator and pilot in the new classical directions. He was one of the first to incorporate electronica (digitally generated sounds) into orchestral music, and his compositions frequently have drawn on vernacular musics, from folksong to jazz and blues to the more artsy strains of rock. This comes naturally to a musician who has doubled as a club DJ for much of his career. (He showcases that alter-ego in a series called Mason Bates’ KC Jukebox at Washington’s Kennedy Center, where he’s currently composer-in-residence.)

“Rags and Hymns of River City,” which ACE commissioned with underwriting from the Allan and Margot Blank Foundation, the Virginia Commission for the Arts and other donors, is one of the most unreservedly vernacular pieces I’ve heard from Bates. Where many of his compositions have used folk or popular references as a kind of garnish to classical forms, here he flips the script, with strings and woodwinds layering neo-neo-classical voicing onto non-classical forms such as the ragtime cakewalk and blues-jazz shuffle (both underpinned by Bates’ electronic rhythm tracks) to make street music of chamber music.

The three pieces that preceded the Bates premiere do much the same thing, albeit on differing paths at different altitudes.

Where “Rags and Hymns” has a rather mellow, Southern kind of urbanity, John Harbison’s Wind Quintet (1979), whose finale was performed in this program, gives off the more rhythmically angular and harmonically fractious air of the Northern city, where bebop and its descendants are the music of the night.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Leyendas: Andean Walkabout” (2001) for string quartet is a kind of aural history tour of the high country of Peru (source of one of the composer’s multi-ethnic roots), with vividly evocative, at times almost cinematically representative, sections recalling the region’s people and folkways, and a musical style that closely parallels folk and popular idioms.

The program’s opening selection, Molly Joyce’s “ABC” (2017), a duo for live viola (played by Kimberly Sparr) and an electronically doctored recording of a viola, is another sample of high-tension urbanity, more elemental than Harbison’s; in Joyce’s piece, syncopated pizzicato figures gradually grow into a vaguely yearning melody, which in turn recedes into a milder, somehow more resigned, pizzicato finale.

ACE’s members – in addition to violist Sparr, violinist Alana Carithers, cellist Jason McComb, double-bassist Ayca Kartari, flutist Jen Lawson, oboist Shawn Welk, clarinetist Jared Davis, bassoonist Tom Schneider and French horn player Erin Lano – rode this program’s varied grooves with energy, fluency and palpable engagement.

Mason Bates’ “Rags and Hymns of River City” will be reprised, alongside works by Maurice Ravel and Jean Français, at 4 p.m. June 2 at Unity of Bon Air, 923 Buford Road. Donation requested. Details: (804) 320-5584;

Letter V Classical Radio March 27

In the first hour, sampling a multi-century range of music from new recordings by pianists Lang Lang, Jeremy Denk and Michele Tozzetti.

noon-3 p.m. EDT
1700-2000 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Ginastera: “Danza de la moza donosa,” Op. 2, No. 2
Lang Lang, piano
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Carlo Gesualdo: Madrigali, Book VI – “O dolce mio tesoro”
Monteverdi: “Scherzi musicali” – “Zefiro torna, e di soavi accenti”
Purcell: “Ye tuneful muses” – Ground in C minor
(transcriptions by Jeremy Denk)
Scarlatti: Sonata in B flat major, K. 551
J.S. Bach: “Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue” in D minor, BWV 903
Jeremy Denk, piano

Bernstein: Sonata
Michele Tozzetti, piano
(Piano Classics)

J.C. Bach: Sinfonia concertante in A major, WC 34
Stephan Schardt, violin
Joachim Fiedler, cello
Musica Antiqua Köln/Reinhard Goebel
(DG Archiv)

Mendelssohn: Double Concerto in D minor, MWV 04
Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano
Gottfried von der Goltz, violin & direction
Freiburger Barockorchester
(Harmonia Mundi)

Past Masters:
Handel: Passacaglia in G minor
(arrangement by Johan Halvorsen)
Jascha Heifetz, violin
William Primrose, viola
(recorded 1941)

Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major
Boris Giltburg, piano
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko

Dvořák: Symphony No. 8 in G major
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
(Channel Classics)

Wilkins taps ‘Americanism’s original voice’

Thomas Wilkins, Norfolk native, former associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony, describes his first subscription concert program with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (where he’s been conductor of youth and family concerts since 2011), devoted to composers of color – Florence Price, Duke Ellington, Roberto Sierra and Virginian Adolphus Hailstork – as “a launching point to move forward,” widening the orchestral repertory to include previously overlooked or neglected music.

“A lot of composers understood that if their music was going to have wide appeal, probably some of it was going to have to come from music of the ‘common person.’ That’s what this program is, except that we have less often focused on Americanism’s original voice in classical music. If you think about someone like Samuel Barber — he was an American composer who wrote in a Western European voice. And that’s not the case with Florence Price or Duke Ellington. I think that’s the major difference,” Wilkins tells the Boston Globe’s David Weininger:

Library of Congress adds 25 recorded ‘classics’

Each year, the Library of Congress adds 25 “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” titles to its National Recording Registry. This year’s inductees range from collections of music by Yiddish performers, recorded between 1901 and 1905, and of American Indians, recorded from 1929 to 1939, to a 1952 episode of the television series “Gunsmoke” and Robert F. Kennedy’s speech following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

Headline hit songs added to the register this year are Cab Calloway’s ”Minnie the Moocher” (1931); “Soul Man” (1967), the rhythm and blues anthem by Sam and Dave; Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” (1958), one of the earliest mainstream Latino songs to make the pop charts; “Mississippi Goddam” (1964), Nina Simone’s bitter response to the killings of civil-rights activists in the Deep South; and “Sweet Caroline” (1969), an early signature tune by Neil Diamond.

Other inductees include the satirical “Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Vol. 1: the Early Years” (1961), the original Broadway cast recording of “Hair” (1968), rapper Jay-Z’s 2001 album “The Blueprint,” and “Schoolhouse Rock!: the Box Set” (1996), an anthology of tunes from the children’s television series.

Two classical sets made this year’s list of classics: The first recordings of the six solo-cello suites of Johann Sebastian Bach, made by Pablo Casals in 1938-39, and the 1963 debut recording of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” led by the composer. (Casals recorded the suites in London and Paris; Britten’s recording was made in Britain.)

The Washington Post’s Travis M. Andrews reports on the Library of Congress’ latest batch of recorded classics:

A complete list of titles in the National Recording Registry can be found here:

Letter V Classical Radio March 20

On the first day of spring, music suiting the season by Vivaldi, Beethoven, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Copland, Stravinsky and the University of Richmond’s Benjamin Broening.

noon-3 p.m. EDT
1700-2000 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Vivaldi: “The Four Seasons” – “Spring”
Midori Seiler, violin & direction
Akademie für alte Musik Berlin
(Harmonia Mundi)

Tchaikovsky: “The Seasons,” Op. 37b –
“Song of the Skylark” (March)
“Snowdrop” (April)
“Bright Nights of May” (May)
Alexander Paley, piano

Schumann: Symphony No. 1 in B flat major (“Spring”)
The Hanover Band/Roy Goodman
(RCA Red Seal)

Debussy: “Printemps”
Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Past Masters:
Copland: “Appalachian Spring”
Columbia Chamber Ensemble/Aaron Copland
(Sony Classical)
(recorded 1973)

Benjamin Broening: “Arioso/Doubles”
Arthur Campbell, clarinet
Benjamin Broening, computer program

Beethoven: Violin Sonata in F major, Op. 24 (“Spring”)
Pamela Frank, violin
Claude Frank, piano
(Music & Arts)

Stravinsky: “Le sacre du printemps”
Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Menuhin winner scores Avery Fisher grant

The Chinese-born, Boston-based Angelo Xiang Yu, 2010 winner of the Menuhin Competition for young violinists, is one of this year’s recipients of $25,000 career grants from the Avery Fisher Artist Program, joining the JACK Quartet, pianist Henry Kramer and the piano duo of Christina and Michelle Naughton:

The next rounds of the Menuhin Competition will be held in Richmond from May 14 to 20, 2020. Winners will perform with the Richmond Symphony and the Sphinx Virtuosi in the finale of the symphony’s Masterworks series on May 23 and 24.

Letter V Classical Radio March 13

noon-3 p.m. EDT
1700-2000 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Berlioz: “Benvenuto Cellini” Overture
Staatskapelle Dresden/Colin Davis
(RCA Red Seal)

Past Masters:
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major
Sviatoslav Richter, piano
London Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin
(recorded 1961)

Janáček: Violin Sonata
Jessica Lee, violin
Reiko Uchida, piano

Past Masters:
Honegger: “Rugby”
Orchestre National de l’ORTF/Jean Martinon
(Warner Classics)
(recorded 1971)

J.S. Bach: “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046
Ensemble Caprice/Matthias Maute

Past Masters:
Bartók: “Contrasts”
Joseph Szigeti, violin
Benny Goodman, clarinet
Béla Bartók, piano
(recorded 1940)

Jan Dismas Zelenka: Sinfonia à 8 concertanti in A minor
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/Gottfried von der Goltz
(Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)

Mozart: Serenade in C minor, K. 388 (“Nacht Musique”)
Harmonie de l’Orchestre des Champs Élysées/Philippe Herreweghe
(Harmonia Mundi)

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6 in B minor
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
(Deutsche Grammophon)